A friend of mine who is also an excellent writer once told me that he doesn’t read doorstop fantasy series until they are complete. The reason is that he is always afraid that the writer will die in the middle of it and leave him hanging.
As a writer myself, I begged to differ. Everyone knows that we’re made of better stuff than that, and no self-respecting author would ever allow his body to fail in the middle of a series. Priorities are priorities: readers come first, natural law a distant second.
Then, in 2007, Robert Jordan died–way too young–leaving us with The Wheel of Time three quarters of the way done.
A quick note about The Wheel of Time. Nowadays, everyone and his kid sister like to brag about their knowledge regarding Game of Thrones. But the show, and the series of books that it was drawn from, would have had a much more difficult path to publication and popularity if Wheel of Time hadn’t been a smash runaway bestseller. Robert Jordan followed in the footsteps of some writers (Terry Brooks comes to mind) but the huge success of his saga opened up the doorstop fantasy sub category (for more on it, here’s my take on The Runelords, another series that likely owes its existence to Jordan).
But, despite his importance, tragedy struck and readers wondered what would happen next?
It’s a difficult decision for a publisher to make. In some cases such as Robert Ludlum, and now Tom Clancy, the publisher simply keeps using the writer’s name and hopes no one reads the obituaries. The real writer’s name is often featured in smaller letters saying something like “with Edward Edwardsson” (of course for sales like that, I’d gladly write a techno-thriller…).
Other publishers openly admit that their guy is gone and get another name author to wrap things up. Think of And Another Thing by Eion Colfer. It’s a good book, it’s a funny book. And no one is pretending the humor is anything like what Douglas Adams would have produced. It isn’t. But that doesn’t make it bad.
The publishers of the Wheel of Time decided to go with a more Robert Ludlum-esque approach. They signed up-and-coming writer Brandon Sanderson, locked him in a room with Jordan’s copious notes and outlines and told him to write the last three books in the series in such a way that everyone would think Robert Jordan did it (OK, I’m not sure if they locked him in a room for the time it took him to write three humungous novels. If they did, that had better have been one hell of an advance!).
To Sanderson’s credit, he pulled the magic trick off without a hitch, and the concluding books are just as good as the preceding volumes.
This was a rare case where a tragedy was good for all the survivors. Tor got the sales they were probably counting on from this series. Readers got the conclusion they wanted to the series. And Sanderson became a household name among fantasy readers (I will admit to having asked who he was when I first heard the news). In a limited sense, even Jordan came out ahead (I assume he would rather not have died, of course): his vision and notes were used to create the final product, and his style was respected.
All of which doesn’t leave me feeling relaxed. A major problem I have is that I’m in the middle of A Song of Ice and Fire, and at the rate they’re being written, I certainly hope George RR Martin has the immortality thing figured out…
Gustavo Bondoni, apart from blogging, also writes. His latest novel, Incursion, is a fun romp about what happens when a suicide mission gets really complicated.